Dystopic Nordic Weird: Review of “Amatka” by Karin Tidbeck

Karin Tidbeck. Photo by Charlotte Frantzdatter.

Weird fiction is increasingly international even as it returns to traditional themes and concerns. It was not so long ago that Finnish fiction from authors such as Leena Krohn, Johanna Sinisalo, and Jyrki Vainonen became prominent in English-language discussions of the weird. WorldCon 75 is being held this August in Helsinki. There exists a palpable sense of excitement about the Nordic twist on weird writing. As Sinisalo wrote here at the WFR in 2012, where others might see and write about the world in straight lines, the Finnish weird is premised on “diagonal” relationships. In the hands of writers such as Sinisalo, fiction’s promise to readers is that, “when they open the book, anything could happen.”

At just about the same time as Sinisalo was advocating the diagonal properties of the Finnish weird, Karin Tidbeck’s startling and highly original collection of short stories Jagganath (Cheeky Frawg, 2012) emerged in English translation. The stories in Jagganath mark out Swedish territory in the Nordic weird tradition. Wintry and wise, they incorporate myths, mysteries, and familial histories. The recent English translation of Amatka follows on this early promise, although Swedish readers will know that Amatka was in fact released in its original language in 2012. Anglophone readers have had to wait some time for this book.

The novel we know of as Amatka originated as a shifting possibility of genres as long ago as 2007. At first it was a group of poems. Then it was a set of dream notes, a collection of flash fiction, and, finally, a long-form narrative. A set of simple yet profound questions oriented the novel’s transformation during its composition: “What is a world like that is ruled by language? How does a society survive in such a world? And what happens to the individual people who live in it?” Here, language holds a premier relationship with the construction of social, political, and individual visions of the world. Consequent on this contention is the power that something might have if it does not have a name.

In philosophy, a long tradition of investigating the central powers of language exists. Most recently, philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben or Daniel Heller-Roazen have forwarded similar constructivist theses about language in texts such as The Fire and the Tale (Stanford 2017) or No One’s Ways (MIT 2017). In Tidbeck’s Amakta, however, the thesis is posed in the sinuous shape of fiction’s eternal question to its reader. Language is gradually, unsettlingly slanted, made diagonal, and put to question. Reading the novel is a remarkable exercise in which the borders of perception and communication fluctuate and bend.

***

Like so many other weird stories, Amatka begins with its central character on a train to the unknown. Commercial researcher Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two, or Vanja for short, has been tasked with travel to an agricultural commune to do research about hygiene product. The novel presents its grey world as a desolate and repressive place. A centralized committee governs most social arrangements, relationships seem secondary to productive work assignments, and goods are generally rationed. The known world is made up of four specialized colonial settlements: one for administration, another for science, a third for industrial production and the fourth, Amatka, for agriculture. It only gradually becomes apparent that not much exists other than the colonists, their settlements, and the mushrooms from which most goods are made.

Once Vanja is in Amatka, many of the colonists find her research risible. Inevitably, however, the inquiry into hygiene becomes only the tip of the investigation in which Vanja finds herself engaged. Cunningly, the investigation is doubled: while Vanja is discovering truths about the community of Amatka, her world’s history, and herself, readers are learning the ostensible and strange facts of Vanja’s world. As it turns out, much of what the world is made of is not as substantial as it first appears.

Throughout the novel, readers are limited to seeing Amatka’s strange world through Vanja’s increasingly disillusioned but also tremulously uncomprehending eyes. While this makes for a gradual reveal of the lurking strangeness that anchors the plot’s explosive final turns, it also leaves gaps in the conceptual origins of how things came to be. The novel never reveals much information about the old world; nor is it clear how the colonists’ arrived in the timeless nowhere of their new world where few crops grow and animals are nowhere to be seen. Some hushed secrets remain unanswered by the novel’s end, including that of the collapse of a fifth. For these reasons, and given the spare prose that conveys mysteries as efficiently as it does information, the novel at times resembles a parable like those of Franz Kafka.

At the same time, weird elements make the story something much more unsettling than a straightforward fable or dystopia. One of the signature behaviors of characters is the activity of “marking”: most items seem to be labelled with their name. At first, this does not seem odd: items on the train are marked as “washbasin, pantry, table.” Society itself is set up to reinforce these markings, with a song sung by children and adults alike to remind them of the importance and implementation of such a textual inscription on the world. This naming of the world’s things even takes precedence over the regulated social relationships between people. For instance, at one point two girls sing “Bed! Chair! Cabinet! Lamp!” to themselves, even as their parents worry that the children may have forgotten them in the social housing that they required to live in.

Not all objects are created equal. Readers discover that “real” objects such as paper taken from the old world do not need to be marked. Those items remain themselves without repeated linguistic prompting. Other objects, however, dissolve into a viscous material that horrifies the colonists with its abject strangeness. Leaving an old suitcase too long turns it to a contagious unknown, a material with disquieting fluidity that Vanja describes as “whitish gloop” and a substance that may “spread to other objects if she didn’t ask fast.” Yet everything else is made from the same material—including the hygiene products Vanja means to catalogue and herself use. Ulla, an older woman whose presence is predictably catalytic for some of the story’s stranger turns, comments on this cognitive dissonance. Ulla’s words trigger Vanja’s perception of the world to mimic the discussion “almost as though the shape of the cup was starting to melt, as though the table was suddenly sagging.” Do words follow or proceed the illusion of material dissolution? And is it in fact an illusion only, this linguistic force?

***

In a radical charge, Amatka speculates on two distinct ways that language might construct the world: as an ossified and necessarily limited bureaucratic operation of textual power or, more speculatively, as a fluid and perhaps even disturbing interchange of desire and material. The more that the fundamental relationship between language and materiality becomes a pronounced element of Amatka’s world, the more strange and self-possessed that world becomes, both narratively and in terms of its own fulfillment. Much of the story’s intensity is generated by the affective relationship that this material possesses and from the sparks that fly from characters’ changing understandings sludge. Everything seems to be made from this abject ooze. The full extent of this “everything” develop a line of speculative horror as its characters dance with understanding, sanity, and social acceptance. The commune’s political organization is not only material but epistemological as well.

In general, one of Amatka’s most impressive features is how it melds social relationships, political organization, and the formative powers of linguistic making and unmaking. Tidbeck’s world depends on no outright forces of evil, no external animosities or sources of clear certainty for characters. Instead, the narrative treats the things that disturb it with complexity and thoughtfulness about how the ties that bind people together may be both more and less than they are thought to be. In an interesting strand of the story, Vanja sometimes finds poetry from a disappeared dissident named Berols’ Anna whose words seem to most beautifully give shape to reality. One private, handwritten fragment reads

we speak          of new worlds
we speak          of new lives
we speak          to give ourselves
to become

Simple and yet eerily profound in the context of the novel’s vision of power and transformation, the novel’s use of poetry makes efficient use of its particular linguistic intensity.

If there is one area where the novel is not always convincing, however, it is in the characters’ fullness. Nina, Ivar, Ulla, and Evgen, the most prominent of the Amatka residents, have specific relationships with the plot and with Vanja. They do not always emerge from the shadows of their roles. This holds true for minor characters as well, but the effect is more muted in their cases. The novel’s fabulist qualities in part militate against the “thickness” of character absent that is largely absent here. It is equally possible that something else is in play, more deftly associated with how possibilities of the un-named and the unknown play out emotionally. Connections between characters are clear but emotionally restrained

Readers will have to evaluate for themselves the novel’s final twists that depend on almost inhuman sympathies. If humanity is in part defined as the capacity for language, a “speaking animal,” Amatka generates its peculiar sense of deep disquiet as it questions the power and limitations of that definition.

***

There are significant precedents for the kind of story that Tidbeck is telling here. Such novels that delve into language are often the best that science fiction, fantasy, and weird fiction has to offer. At times, I was reminded by the linguistic focus of China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011). Further back in the speculative tradition, the arid commune of Amatka and Vanja’s spare use of language reminded me of a strange half-dream of Anarres in The Dispossessed if Ged from the Earthsea novels somehow stumbled into that failing communal society. (Those novels too obsess over the political and existential elements of communication.) Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 (1966) pursued something similar in militarized space. These comparisons of fiction after the linguistic turn are only partially relevant, of course, and other influences could be discerned. It is unsurprising that Tidbeck has written about how LARPing was formative to her writing habits – in this kind of role playing, language most nakedly argues for its ability to transform the world.

Ultimately unique to itself, Amatka builds of its central fascination with the powers of language a world in which things are exactly as they seem. In its most cunning twist of all, the horror with which characters register the “sludge” from which their worlds are built reveals itself as an antagonistic relationship with the pure elements of material potential. But such antagonism is not necessary; it is consequent on the social traditions that shape the colonists’ perceptions of their environments. Language exerts an inhuman machinic force. The colonists have constructed homes in more than just the material world.

Stripped of language, the world’s constitutive things may be too abject to consider—or, just maybe, they might not. Perception is a fickle space in which to construct relationships, concepts, homes. The degree to which a reader may enjoy Amatka depends on their desire to speculate on linguistic power, to read in the textual capacity to create and hold intensities across the shape of the world—and the desire to decreate and permit those intensities to alleviate and disappear. Amatka possesses the qualities of a fable and the febrile brilliance of weird fiction at its most inventive and self-questioning. The novel reminds readers of Karin Tidbeck’s powers just as it marks out further ground in the Nordic Weird.

One reply to “Dystopic Nordic Weird: Review of “Amatka” by Karin Tidbeck

  1. Pingback: Friday Links – Speculative Fiction in Translation